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TV on DVD: “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”

As the holiday movie season approaches, one film I eagerly await is the new adaptation of John LeCarre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring Gary Oldman as LeCarre’s most enduring character, George Smiley. Oldman is a superb actor, but he has a lot to live up to, as many people will argue that the consummate portrayal of Smiley was done by Sir Alec Guinness in this BBC miniseries released in 1979. In anticipation of the Oldman film (currently showing in Europe), Acorn Video has released this 3 disc DVD collection of that miniseries, as it appeared in the U.S.

At six hours (apparently, the original British version was seven), this is a dense piece of television viewing. At times there are so many characters and British intelligence jargon being tossed around that you’ll need the DVD insert that provides a breakdown of the principal players and a glossary of the terminology. To a casual viewer, I can imagine this would be a little intimidating; this is not one of those made-for-TV movies that you can have on in the background while you’re cooking dinner or reading the latest No Concessions on Popdose. However, if you put in the time, Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy is quite rewarding.

The series begins when British intelligence agent, Ricki Tarr (Hywel Bennett), learns that there is a mole, codenamed “Gerald,” working in the highest level of British intelligence, also known as the Circus. It can only be one of four men, so tracking down the double agent must be a covert mission and one handled by a man with just as much influence and experience as the four men running the Circus, who are Percy Alleline (Michael Aldridge), the director, and his deputies, Bill Haydon (Ian Richardson), Roy Bland (Terence Rigby) and Toby Esterhase (Bernard Hepton). Any one of these men could be Gerald and it’s up to Smiley to bring him to justice.

All of these potential traitors were Smiley’s colleagues until a botched mission in Hungary cost Smiley and his boss, Control (Alexander Knox), their jobs. Now sidelined and divorced, the aging Cold Warrior is approached by Lacon (Anthony Bate), a civil service officer at the Circus, to head up the secret operation. Smiley brings in Peter Guilliam (Michael Jayston), the head of the “scalphunters” (aka the guys who do the dirty work like assassinations and burglary) to be his right hand man. Together, these two hunt down Gerald and uncover a labyrinth-like plot of deceit, lies and murder.

My (very) brief plot assessment gives you the facts. The storytelling jumps back and forth from the past to the present, sometimes even flashing back while you’re in a flashback! If you happen to look away, you could lose valuable information that is pertinent to the outcome of the story. If you happen to look away you also could miss some incredible acting by Guinness, Richardson and the rest of the impeccable cast. Because of the length allotted for this adaptation, there are many pregnant pauses that allow the actors the opportunity to react and think, something rarely seen in modern television. I can’t tell you how many times I was mesmerized by Guinness as he  just listens to someone and lets us, the viewer, watch Smiley contemplate. Anyone interested in masterful acting need only watch Guinness as Smiley.

While the plot is very complicated, there is also a lot of emotional depth in the film, especially with Smiley. It’s revealed early on that his wife, Ann, had an affair with Bill Haydon. Many of the people he encounters view the failure of his marriage as one of Smiley’s shortcomings as a man. His enemies are constantly getting a little dig in, asking, “How’s Ann?” Each time her name is mentioned, you can see the dagger pierce a little deeper.

The DVD is a solid transfer of the original film stock. Since this was made-for-television, you can tell that the budget wasn’t too high. At times, the night scenes are particularly grainy, and others there are dust marks and scratches on the print.  You shouldn’t let these minor flaws discourage you from checking out this miniseries, though. The Oldman feature film must have major cuts to the plot to allow for its feature running time. This 1979 miniseries is the only cinematic version of Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy that covers most of the novel’s content.

Bonus features include production notes and filmographies. The most interesting feature is an lengthy interview with author, LaCarre. In it he calls this adaptation of Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy one of his favorites to be made from his books. Sounds like a ringing endorsement to me.




  • http://youmustbefromaway.com/ jb

    Nice reviewing, Scott. Just got hold of the BBC DVD set in preparation to seeing the Oldman re-make.
    As you so rightly point out – a masterclass in acting. These are people who learned their craft on the regional stage and it shows.